Day 1: I began the day by scraping frost off the windshield, but then enjoyed the sun rising over the mountains and the North Fork Moormans. It was surprising to find this trout stream in Shenandoah National Park as low as it was. I was expecting more water, but the area was obviously in a drought or, more precisely, recovering from a very dry season. In six years of spring and autumn fishing on this Blue Ridge stream, I had never seen it this low.
Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t scheduled until dark, so I had time for a leisurely 5-mile walk into the mountains. I encountered only a few hikers and no anglers whatsoever. Casting with my old buddy, Chester the Virginia fly rod, I stalked whatever pools still looked deep enough to hold a native trout, and took in a bit of scenery that included birds such as a red-shouldered hawk and several winter wrens.
The hike through the colorful mountains was enjoyable but the fishing was as difficult as any outing that I’ve had this year. The water was clear and cold; the sun was bright and pleasant. It was hard to keep my shadow off the water. All that came to me were a handful of trout, a few small ones on a dry fly and another native on a wet.
Day 2: It might be “Black Friday” but the Rapidan River looked bright and anything but commercial. It looked great, as one might expect a premier brook trout river to appear. Compared to yesterday’s North Fork, the Rapidan was full-flowing and attractive with deep-water pockets and boulder-sided pools. It wasn’t long, however, till I felt that something was amiss. Casting nymphs (and even a few dry flies) to the cold 41 degree water, I caught nothing.
Checking on favorite old pools, I fished upstream for several miles into the Blue Ridge wilderness before I finally caught a brook trout. With such promising water, why was fishing so slow? Sure, the bright sun wasn’t helping matters, but I worked like hell to keep off the water and to limit the effect of shadows there.
I had a similar experience here one year ago. The fishing was great but the catching was lousy. The previous summer had been hot and dry. The trout could have swum far upstream in pursuit of cooler water temperatures. Again, this past summer was a dry one, and the brookies may have migrated higher into the mountains.
If I’m correct, then the snow-melt and the rains of spring will flush the wild trout to the middle and lower elevations of the Rapidan where I’m accustomed to find them. I don’t know if this theory of trout migration holds water or not, but I’m interested in hearing the opinion of others.
Day 3: White Oak Canyon Run is not the kind of place you visit if you’re into solitude, but the theme for this outing was family, and fly-fishing was kind of a sideline activity. Despite the high level of foot-traffic on the trail adjacent to the stream, our extended family enjoyed a pleasant hike. I took Chester the fly rod into the stream at various points to test the brook trout theory I’d been developing over the previous couple of days.
White Oak Canyon Run is a stairway stream with a gradient so steep that you can walk upstream and approach most pools at head level. You peek around a group of boulders and cast without much worry that the trout will see you. White Oak Run, unlike the North Fork and Rapidan, has numerous waterfalls and won’t allow the trout to migrate far if drought and high water temps afflict it.
It seemed the perfect stream to test my theory. If fish hadn’t migrated toward the headwaters, they’d be here as I found them on my previous visit in spring.
The sky cooperated by clouding over as we made our way along the trail. But White Oak Canyon Run, aside from a few expansive pools, seemed like the North Fork Moormans– low and clear. And no trout came to hand.
To make a long story short, I shot my theory full of holes. Who knows what was going on with the trout. Oh, I saw a couple. One trout rose to a dry fly but didn’t stay hooked. Another one hid beneath a rock the moment the small fly hit the water.
Mystery resumed its rightful role in fly-fishing. I declared that the pursuit was dead (for now). I hastened to add, “Long live the pursuit of beauty. Long live casting with a fly!”